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Next time, try a sit-in

An alert student of mine let me know the other day that students at Harvard University staged a walkout of their Principles of Economics course, which is known there as Ec 10, as part of the Occupy Harvard movement. This interests me for several reasons, including the fact that I’m scheduled to teach Principles myself next semester. Also, the instructor of Harvard’s course, Greg Mankiw, was on my Ph.D. thesis committee.

I’m wondering, of course, whether students will stage a walkout of Econ 51 next semester. But I’m also wondering whether I’ll notice, since students usually stage a walkout of this course every Spring semester. It’s called tenting. That makes me wonder, in turn, whether this year we’ll call tenting “Occupy K-ville.” But that sounds like some kind of stunt the UNC students would try to pull to impress Dick Vitale (line monitors, please take note). So I hope we just stick to calling it tenting.

I have mixed feelings about the Harvard walkout. Although I completely support students’ rights to walk out in protest of any course they wish, especially if it means they haven’t done the problem set anyway, I’d still rather have them stay in class. And that’s even after they say some of the less well-informed things that were quoted in the Harvard Crimson article, like one student who said, “Ec 10 is a symbol of the larger economic ideology that created the 2008 collapse. Professor Mankiw worked in the Bush administration, and he clearly has a conservative ideology.” Kid, thank you for going to Harvard instead of Duke.

I really don’t think that Professor Mankiw was trying to brainwash his students with any conservative ideology or agenda. I make this statement based on my own experiences, though they took place before the advent of either the Internet or electricity (I can’t remember which one any more) and are therefore highly suspect. I was a teaching assistant for Mankiw’s first-year Ph.D. course in macroeconomics for two years, which means that I sat in on his entire course twice.

If there’s any strong ideological undercurrent in Mankiw’s teaching, I would say that it’s Nerdism: the belief that people should listen to, and learn from, nerds…. Because believe me—and I say this with genuine respect and affection—Mankiw is a nerd’s nerd. Beyond that, though, the place where Mankiw shows up on the ideological spectrum is that he’s supposedly a Keynesian. But in one of the Ph.D. classes I sat in on, Mankiw defined his own Keynesianism as simply the belief that government can have a positive impact on the economy. That was his response, by the way, to a first-year Ph.D. student’s attempt to call him out for being a Keynesian. Mankiw’s statement doesn’t seem to place him either with the Tenured Radicals or with the Ayn Rand crowd.

For some reason, people across the political spectrum seem to think that colleges and universities have some kind of ideological code they require their faculty to subscribe to. Or perhaps they think there’s some kind of peer pressure that professors exert on each other so that everyone mouths the same political views. All I can say is that I’ve never experienced any of that—though the thought of my colleagues using classic peer pressure enforcement mechanisms on each other—noogies and wedgies—is sort of amusing. And besides, the saying that managing professors is like herding cats is absolutely true. We can’t even enforce a dress code on faculty, for crying out loud—and yet people want to believe that universities can tell their faculty what to think?

Professors do have an agenda that they want to pass on to their students, but it’s not about getting you to agree with their political views. For example, here’s mine. I want to figure out what the hell’s going on in our economy, so that we can solve some of its problems and therefore get it to help us solve some of our problems. I have this set of tools that I’m using to figure things out, but they aren’t perfect. And the economy is so big and complex that I’ll never understand it by myself.

But I’m hoping that I can interest a few other people to come along and help out with this project—after all, I’m not the one who started this project either. I want to show people how to use these tools, in the hopes that they can learn how to use the tools better than I can, and maybe even go on to make more powerful or precise tools some day. If we all learn to use these tools, then we can have better conversations about what we think is really going on in the economy and how to solve its problems. Sure, we’ll disagree—but even the quality of our disagreements will be higher, because we have learned how to think more clearly about the economy and how it works.

We can’t work on this project together if you walk out of my class. Stay in class, and stay healthy next semester, tenters.

Connel Fullenkamp is the director of undergraduate studies and professor of the practice of economics. His column runs every other Tuesday.


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